Prophets and Preachers
Let us consider the common claim that a prophet is just another preacher. In every age there have been men and women claiming prophetic gifts and supernatural experiences. Some of these have been true prophets, but most of them, as the scripture reminds us again and again, have been false. To avoid the labor of distinguishing the true from the false, it has been the practice of historians simply to lump all such claimants together in a single class. To do this is to perpetrate a grave injustice against real prophets, just as to lump all professing healers together (as some people do) is a grave injustice to honest doctors. If there were only three real physicians in the world, it would still be unfair to put all doctors together in one category; and if there were only three honest prophets in history, it would be wrong to class all prophets together.
For example, Christ has been charged by ancients and moderns alike with being just another traveling healer and wonderworker, a wandering wiseman, a teacher of virtue, a thoroughly typical representative of the "lunatic fringe." Generations of scholars have been quick to point to the remarkable parallel between his wanderings, sufferings, and teachings and those of his near-contemporary, Apollonius of Tyana. The old traveling quack Peregrinus impressed the shrewd and discerning Lucian as being a typical Christian disciple. At an early period men began collecting stories and affidavits about Jesus' early life showing him to be a simple country boy with an inordinate desire to impress people. The conscientious and intelligent Celsus published one of these accounts in all good faith. According to this version Jesus made up the story about being born of a virgin because he was really ashamed of having been born in a miserable Jewish village to a poor working woman of the lowest class. "He says she was actually thrown out by her husband, a carpenter by trade, when he found that she had been guilty of adultery. Then, he says [Celsus is quoting his Jewish informant], since she had been kicked out, she wandered around like a tramp and bore Jesus in disgrace. And he, having no means of support, went off to Egypt looking for work. There he became acquainted with certain skills on which the Egyptians pride themselves. As his adeptness in these increased, he began to get exalted ideas about himself and ended up announcing that he was God."1 The same local authority can furnish specific data for this story: We even know the name of the soldier by whom Mary was pregnant—it was Panthera; and everybody always admitted that the child was not Joseph's. 2 This, Celsus finds far more plausible than any farfetched tales about virgin birth; the whole thing seems to ring true to him, he says, and easily accounts for all the events that otherwise have to be explained by miracles. We must admit that Celsus has a point. The low-class origin, the poverty, loose morals, odd jobs, magic and hocus-pocus, mounting ambition, and supernatural claims are all very plausible. One could furnish many parallels from the world in which Jesus lived. Ever since Celsus, men have seized upon superficial resemblances of Christ to other religious men of his age to prove that he was simply one of many. That makes him easy to explain. By diligent search one can match all his teachings with the teachings of others—the earliest Apologists actually used to do that, asking the pagans, "Why do you persecute us when we teach only what you do?" Christ was a homeless man followed about by disciples, so were the traveling Sophists; he was a great moral teacher, so were they; he was persecuted and reviled, so were the Stoics and Pythagoreans; his followers claimed that he was the Messiah, so did the followers of Bar Kochba and Bar Nephele; he was crucified, so were Mani and many other religious fanatics. Even his resurrection easily suggests the victory over death in the year-drama rituals of many oriental people, when the king emerges from the underworld after having been overwhelmed in combat with death. All these things have been pointed out repeatedly in order to bring Christ down to the level of everyday experience and supplant the miraculous and embarrassing by the commonplace and reassuring. But all to no avail. One does not compose music with a slide rule, and the divinity and truthfulness of Christ were never meant to be proved by history, since we are told from the beginning that that knowledge comes to one only by direct revelation from the Father in heaven.
But even on historic grounds the accidental resemblances between the Lord and other teachers are superficial and trivial compared with the great fundamental differences between them. There is a huge classic literature dealing with the activities of traveling wise men and religious teachers in late antiquity. These men all had certain well-marked characteristics. After the manner of the seven wise men, they wandered unattached through the world as spectators of God's works; Christ always stayed within a few miles of home and never evinced any interest in natural philosophy. They were all seekers after wisdom; Christ had it to give. They lived in complete detachment from society and were tolerated by rulers and governments as harmless dreamers; his organizing activities alarmed Roman and Jewish authorities. They emancipated themselves from family and friends; he lived intimately with them all his days. They performed interesting experiments and theatrical tricks to delight and impress the multitude; his miracles were all useful ones, never meant to be eye-catching. They attended the schools of others and sought to sit at the feet of great teachers; he spoke as one having authority. They did everything to attract the largest possible following; he forbade his disciples to do what would make them popular. They gained or lost students as disciples chose to follow or leave them; he chose his own disciples and bound them to him by bonds and covenants. They all (as Professor Jaeger has shown) gave political counsel and advice, seeking official advisory positions and corresponding widely with government officials by mail; he gave no such advice and wrote no such letters. The only proper place for them to deliver their discourses was in the theater, the official assembly place; he always avoided holding forth in such places. They cultivated peculiarities of dress and appearance; his disciples were criticized for not doing so. We could go on and on, but the point is clear: Christ was in all essentials the very opposite to the men with whom he is classed. In a word, he was a true prophet, and they were not: if they sometimes resembled him, it was because of their own efforts to make a noise like true prophets. The great difference was that they were only looking for what Christ had. They spoke as scribes and pharisees, hypocrites; he as one having authority. There is all the difference in the world between the two. Amid a host of like-minded seekers—many of them devout and honest men—one alone was not a seeker.
Bearing this in mind, let us turn to criticisms of our modern prophets, especially of Joseph Smith. I am sure that as we read the "official" account of Jesus, most of our listeners thought of the usual Gentile stories of Joseph Smith. More familiar even than the sly, sordid details and the air of superior knowledge and sophistication in the teller is the characteristic insinuation that Jesus and his family were not really the sort of people with whom respectable men and women associate. This tone runs through all the early anti-Christian as it does through the anti-Mormon literature. Men have not been slow to point out superficial resemblances of the modern prophet to other men around him: he founded a church, so did other men; he claimed revelation from heaven, so did they; he was persecuted, so were they; he read the Bible, so did they; and since they were impostors, so accordingly was he. This last is what you cannot say. One might build up an endless list of resemblances between Joseph Smith and Gladstone, but what would it prove save that they both were men? What we must ask in the case of the modern prophet is what we must ask in the case of Jesus: where was he essentially different from all the rest?
On this question, one man's opinion is deserving of particular attention. Eduard Meyer was one of the most learned men of modern times. Ancient history was his field, and the origin of religions was his special interest. He wrote authoritative works on the origin of religions, and singled out the Latter-day Saints as one of the great original religions. Most other churches and sects are really only episodes in the history of a going concern, variations on an accepted theme, reforms or innovations undertaken by men who, though they may have felt aware of a special calling or a special talent for the job, were simply doing what other men did. But three religions—primitive Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism—actually claim to have been founded not by men but by direct revelation from heaven.
Meyer finds the closest resemblance between the Mormon Church and the primitive Christians. They resemble each other in every detail, even to their defects. He also finds resemblances between Joseph Smith and Mohammed, but these are superficial and incidental compared with the essential points on which the two men, both claiming to be prophets, stand in complete antithesis to each other. Since it has long been a popular indoor sport among the Gentiles to compare Joseph Smith to Mohammed, it will not be amiss at this time to list the points of difference between the two as observed by one of the few scholars, perhaps the only scholar, who has ever had a firsthand knowledge of both Mormons and Mohammedans:
(1) First of all, Meyer dwells at considerable length on the doubts and misgivings that so long beset Mohammed, his long periods of self mistrust and black despair, especially that period known as the fatra when he meditated and, according to some sources, even attempted suicide. For the Prophet of Islam, being an honest man, was greatly worried over the possibility that he might be insane, or that what he had seen might have been a devil rather than an angel. In contrast to this, "it is for Joseph Smith very significant," wrote Meyer, "that there is in his case absolutely no question of any such doubts and misgivings."3 Meyer congratulates Mohammed for having the normal human reaction and chides Smith for not having it.
(2) Second, in contrast to Joseph Smith's behavior, Meyer holds up the exemplary caution, restraint, and shrewdness of Mohammed, showing how he gained confidence with practice and through the years carefully worked out his doctrine and his story, correcting, revising, and building it up. Unlike Joseph Smith, or the Old Testament prophets, Meyer observes, Mohammed never actually sees anything in his revelations, but reads slowly and very painfully from a book. 4 Smith finds himself in company with the ancient prophets of Israel. Mohammed does not.
(3) The most important difference between the two purported prophets, according to Eduard Meyer, is "that Joseph Smith has a belief in the continuation of direct prophetic inspiration, speaking in tongues, etc., and along with that, of personal inspiration which every believer can receive. . . . Mohammed, on the other hand, knows only of one single book, that is the Bible, with which he has a vague acquaintance."5
(4) Joseph Smith views spiritual and supernatural things "much more crassly and materially" than does Mohammed. For Joseph, the manifestations of the other world are something quite real and matter-of-fact. "For Mohammed, on the other hand, there is only one miracle—the revelation of the words of the divine book and the appearance of angels. He denied any power to do miracles, and his followers have no special power of any kind." 6 Modern Mohammedans rather pride themselves on their cool and rational attitude toward all other-worldly things.
(5) The most obvious point of resemblance between these two men is their common claim to have given the world a revealed book. But precisely on this point Meyer finds the completest (if not the most important) difference between them. After all, hundreds of men have claimed to have given inspired writings to the world—there is nothing in the mere claim to justify or condemn a prophet. But Smith's book is like no other. Whereas "for Mohammed the book always remains in the hands of the angel," Smith not only read but also translated his book, which he carried around from place to place; he actually copied out characters of the book and circulated them around for all, including his worst enemies, to look at—has any impostor ever displayed such absolute confidence in his work? "Any such thing," says Meyer, "would never have occurred to Mohammed."7
Mohammed's accounts of heavenly visitors are vague and conflicting. Usually his visions came in sleep—he looks above him and sees something in the air, or he sees Gabriel standing on the horizon, or filling the sky with his gigantic size, or confronting him whichever way he turns his head, or standing a bowshot away. There is a dream-like quality in it all. Smith's reports, on the other hand, are clear, specific, and precise. The writer's great-grandfather was a Jew, and a very hardheaded and practical man. He tells in his journal, writing on the very day that the event took place, of how he cross-examined Joseph Smith on every minute detail of the First Vision and of how the Prophet satisfied him promptly and completely. From that day he never doubted the calling of the Prophet. Apparently Mohammed is not exactly sure just what an angel is. But what could be more clear and concrete than Joseph Smith's description of Moroni?
Eduard Meyer's final conclusion is that "Mohammed's revelations stand higher than those of Joseph Smith, because in his case we feel . . . something of the power of a conviction wrung out by hard mental toil, and even at times we feel something of a poetic inspiration."8 Of this, not the minutest trace in Joseph Smith. Meyer can respect the mental effort of the founder of Islam wrestling with his human limitations, but Joseph Smith remains an enigma. Meyer has no patience with this upstart who never doubts in the face of the most appalling persecution, and amid all his terrible trials and struggles never struggles for inspiration. Meyer's impatience with Joseph Smith is actually a strong witness to his prophetic calling, for Meyer treats Ezekiel in exactly the same way. Of this great prophet he says:
"The prophetic apparatus has sunk to the most literal form. Ezekiel is a literary hack-worker. He does not work through the living word such as Isaiah and Jeremiah struggled to bring out of the depths of the soul, but simply reels off the contents of a book which he is supposed to have swallowed in a vision. . . . Ezekiel is narrow-minded, cramped, without sweep or power, devoid of any creative imagination (Phantasie) and hence marked by unendurable pedantry and monotony."9
Here we have an interesting test. Meyer likes and understands Mohammed who, though a remarkable man to say the least, is after all just a man who reacts as one would expect any normal man to react if he were trying to work himself into a state of religious conviction. The vagueness, the mystery, the struggle, the doubt—every religious leader experiences them, and we all have some idea of what Mohammed went through. He is, so to speak, just another preacher, though a great one. But not so Joseph Smith! Meyer finds him, like Ezekiel, crass, literal, unpoetic, devoid of power of fantasy, unmoved by doubts, unennobled by despairing struggles. Here are men that cannot by any effort be fitted into Meyer's catalogue of religious thinkers. If the nature of his prophetic claims placed him completely apart from all the other religious men of his day, it also disqualified Joseph Smith for classification with any other type of prophet than that represented by Ezekiel, Christ, and the ancient Apostles. However much he may have resembled other men in other things, when it came to his prophetic calling, Joseph Smith was not a Mohammed struggling to convince himself and find poetic expression; he was not a scholar of divinity seeking to unriddle the scriptures for his less-educated or less-inspired fellows; and certainly he was not just another preacher. He was a true Prophet of God.
1. Origen, Contra Celsum I, 27, in PG 11:713.
2. Ibid., I, 32, in PG 11:721.
3. Eduard Meyer, Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen (Halle: Niemeyer, 1912), 68—75, quote on p. 69, n. 2; published also as Origin and History of the Mormons, trans. H. Rahde and E. Seaich (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1961), 44—49.
4. Ibid., 71, n. 1; 47, n. 1, in English translation.
5. Ibid., 80—81; 54 in English translation.
6. Ibid., 81—82; 55 in English translation.
7. Ibid., 82; 55 in English translation.
8. Ibid.; 55—56 in English translation.
9. Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (Stuttgart: Cotta, 1944), 4:168, 170; see also (1937 edition), 3:113, n. 1.